Vulnerability is neither comfortable nor easy to watch. Kichijiro of Shusaku Endo’s famous novel, Silence, shows ugly and smelly vulnerability over and over again as he confesses, not once, but three times, his denial of God. Les Misérables protagonist, Jean Valjean, attempts to mask his own mistakes behind strength his entire life – only becoming vulnerable and receiving the forgiveness he desperately desires as he lays weak and sick on his death bed.
We see these scenes repeated throughout life: in a friend’s confession of her deepest secret, as an estranged family member asks for forgiveness for an old, hurtful action, or perhaps even in strangers – as we pass a man with a cardboard sign and a tattered blanket every day on the way to work. More often than not, my reaction to vulnerability is to avert my gaze rather than immediately rejoice in celebration.
Many of us may also remember times where our own weakness has appeared insurmountable – times when we lay prostrate – unloading the guilt of our sins and fears on a trusted friend, the person we’ve hurt or distrusted, or on God. I can think of times when I’ve myself been so desperate for forgiveness I no longer cared what I look liked in order to get it. Vulnerability is an ugly process – there’s rarely anything beautiful or peaceful about it.
Yet despite all of this, it appears that vulnerability is in right now.
But I’m afraid it’s a very different vulnerability than the scenes depicted above. Social media is filled with people baring their hearts, and comments commending authors for sharing anything and everything unapologetically. Vulnerability is the new authenticity and it doesn’t take long scrolling through Instagram to find a heartfelt confession paired with a beautiful DSLR photo and the hashtag #vulnerabilityisstrength.
I do not want to disregard that some of these posts do truly help those that read and interact with them. These can remind us we are not alone in our depression, heartbreak or other struggle, and give us a sense of normalcy, especially in the midst of the “perfect life” culture we’ve created. On the other hand, the pressure to confess something in the name of strength, might and picturesque beauty is something to be wary of. It makes me wonder if we really are becoming more vulnerable with each other or simply repackaging our attempts to prove ourselves worthy and valuable under a new banner of what we think the world wants to see.
Vulnerability is Weakness
In her book, Daring Greatly, shame expert Brené Brown defines vulnerability simply as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” She goes on to argue that vulnerability is at the the center of meaningful human experience and leads to courage, compassion and connection. We know from experience that vulnerability with the right people in the right setting can help us relate with one another and encourage each other. But it’s important to note here that while vulnerability creates the opportunity for courage, compassion and connection, it is not in and of itself these things. Vulnerability itself is not a position of courage or strength, it is very much a position of weakness. When you are open with others, you expose yourself to attack. You are either made to feel weak or are choosing to make yourself weak.
And if there’s anything we don’t like, as Christians, Americans, or humans in general – it’s weakness. We will go to any length to ignore it, avoid it, or even change its definition to a definition of strength. We operate from the assumption that weakness is always a negative or bad thing, and deep down, we remain terrified of exposing our true selves to the world. If that were to happen, it might just appear as if we can’t do this whole thing on our own.
Even more, it may seem like we need someone else to save us.
We know our imperfections better than anyone and we’ll do whatever it takes to hide these from others, even if that means using the idea of weakness to appear honest and authentic.
Jesus shows us another way
While many of Jesus’ followers dreamed he would overthrow the Roman government through a victorious battle, he was crucified in weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4). He rode a donkey rather than a strong stallion. He was betrayed by Judas and then denied by Peter. He was crucified on a cross after being beaten bloody and mocked incessantly, despite the fact that in an instant, he could have showed His strength and stopped it all. It was on the cross that Jesus became vulnerable for you and for me.
Vulnerability isn’t a “have-to”
Christ’s vulnerability has changed everything. He knows our weaknesses inside and out, for he too faced temptation, suffering, and sin – overcoming them for us on the Cross. We have a Savior who has given us eternal life, and in the here and now, he sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).
And because of this, we have the freedom in Christ to admit and confront our weaknesses knowing that vulnerability neither validates nor breaks us. Vulnerability can be a necessary step toward a deeper relationship with a friend or loved one, or a crucial part of repentance, but it will always lack the saving power Christ’s vulnerability has already won for us.
Just like authenticity, courage or kindness, the ability to become vulnerable flows from our assurance in Christ, not our assurance in Instagram likes or comments.
When we choose to look for our worth and value in baring our hearts (in both good and bad situations!), we lose sight of both Christ and the good that can come from vulnerability, authenticity or kindness. Because here’s the kicker, Christ is the only one who frees us from our dependence on the acceptance of others. Not only is Christ’s vulnerability an example set before us, most importantly, He took on vulnerability in all of its weakness for us. And while we will continue to struggle with the desire to turn our eyes to our own actions for validation, Christ stands as a reminder that it His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinth. 12:9). Christ made himself weak so that he could overcome our weaknesses in His perfect strength!
Making vulnerability a cultural “have-to” ironically turns it from something that points us to Christ in our deficiencies and instead keeps us in the dangerous cycle of trying to prove our own strength. When we put our hope in our actions rather than in Christ, you better bet that sooner or later we’ll find our eyes glued to ourselves without any ability to look outward toward Christ or to others. Because Christ was perfectly vulnerable for you and for me, we are free to openly express our feelings, without feeling the pressure that we have to.
It’s okay to be honest with the depths of our depravity as we confess our sins to God. It’s also okay to open up to the right person at the right time, in the hope of connection and empathy rather than the need for approval. When we look to Christ for our strength rather than our existing or non-existing vulnerability, we can have the confidence that one much greater has gone before us.
True vulnerability doesn’t know what the outcome of itself will be. That’s exactly why it’s vulnerability. But Christ crucified is the solution to all unanswered outcomes. In Him we have the freedom – rather than the obligation – to be weak in order that His strength and might may continue to save and preserve us.